Health and Well-Being of Senior Citizens

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

As we are all aware, from the beginning of the Covid pandemic, a major concern has been the health of senior citizens. This is because Covid-19 being a coronavirus, it was expected to affect the elderly predominantly, like the ‘flu. Indeed, that’s what happened initially, and as deaths started to occur most of the victims were seniors, partly also because they had comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease or hypertension and so on. In fact, as health systems came to be quickly overrun with the surging numbers of patients infected with Covid, there were allegations that health services were being prioritized towards the younger patients to the detriment of the elderly – in nursing homes in the UK, for example. When vaccines first became available, seniors were on the priority list along with frontliners.

Within a short time, however, all age groups began to be infected, and Covid didn’t care about the weather, continuing in all countries and climes its expansionist designs – by default or by design (as is currently being speculated) – on its preferred targets, us human beings. Although there are set medical criteria e.g. severity of disease based on symptoms and data from examination of the patient and the results of investigations, in an environment with shortage of beds and facilities, doctors are faced with an enduring dilemma of who to admit when young and old are equally in need of intensive treatment.

Sometimes this is resolved when there is an act of altruism – as happened in the state of UP in Bharat a few weeks ago, when an 80-plus year-old patient preferred to allow a young patient to be allotted the only bed available that he had been assigned, saying that he had lived his life and that patient was more deserving. His family respected his wish and took him home, where he passed peacefully after a few days.

Such acts of goodness may not necessarily be replicated widely, but if we arrive at three score and ten in the best of shapes, we diminish the risk of catching Covid – or any infection –, thus lessening the burden on the health system – which itself can be considered as an act of ‘neutral,’ collective, altruism – and make place for those more deserving. Again, as we all have been hearing from the experts, Covid is here to stay. Isn’t it in order that we should prepare ourselves for it in anticipation? – whatever happens later, for not everything is in our hands after all!

The way to do this is of course to start early, by which I mean that you mustn’t wait until you become senior citizen to begin thinking about your health. Well before that stage is reached, you must make up your mind to remain in the pink, i.e. from your young age.

That’s why I salute the initiative of Global Rainbow Foundation to organize a webinar under the aegis of its U3AM (University of 3rd Age Mauritius), and willingly accepted to be the resource person for the event held on last Thursday 20th May, with the theme ‘Health & Well-being of Seniors including Covid impact.’ Although the audience consisted mainly of seniors, as expected, I made it a point to request them to pass the message to their families and friends about the importance of starting young to keep oneself fit so as to ‘age healthily’ when the time comes.

And that started, as I pointed out with, firstly, understanding what is meant by health, which most of us equate with absence of disease. In other words, because of this lack of knowledge of the different dimensions of health, as long as we feel well – which is the case at least for the first few decades of our life – we keep on indulging in goodies. And then one day disease strikes, and we ask ‘what happened? I have been so well!’

Well, no. The body can take in a lot, and keep adjusting, but at some stage there is a breaking point. So I started by spelling out the definition of health according to WHO, which is: ‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental & social well-being and not merely absence of disease.’

This meant therefore that one should provide good nourishment to the body (physical), the mind (mental) and nurture sound and happy relationships (social) at all times. In practice, this places a responsibility on parents to inculcate the habit of healthy eating to their children, avoiding fast foods and fizzy drinks, having plenty of greens, vegetables and fruits: but lead by example! Don’t smoke, certainly not in front of children, and stick to being a social drinker if at all that is a requirement. Get out from in front of the screens and engage in physical activity in fresh air. And have hobbies that give pleasure and can be shared across age groups, like reading or nature treks. 

I briefly explained the changes that take place as one ages: most visible of course were those in the skin which thins out, becomes wrinkled, and then whitening of the hair with or without baldness. But these visible changes are accompanied by corresponding changes in the other  bodily structures. And thus there is a slowing down, easy tiredness, and not being able to do  do as much as before. Vision diminishes, and bodily reflexes are not as prompt. There may be diminution of vision, as well as a slowing down of digestion, constipation, as well as urinary incontinence. On the other hand, familiar to all is forgetfulness. These are some of the main alterations-cum-deteriorations that take place, and they can occur in the absence of any disease which, if present, can aggravate them depending on which organ is affected.

However, the good news is that most of these changes can to some degree be prevented, and certainly their onset delayed if in addition to the good habits adopted at early age – although it is never too late to start – they added: pranayama to improve lung function, and taichi to develop and maintain bodily equilibrium which is very important in old age to prevent falls that can cause fractures with disabling consequences. Further, they could take up yoga to maintain the suppleness of their joints and stimulate the hormonal glands, as well as its meditative practices to calm the mind and reduce stress. Moreover, to keep the mind sharp, they could read, do puzzles, solve crosswords or Sudoku.

Walking is a simple form of exercise that can help immensely. If one has friends to walk with and socialize with – remember social well-being? – nothing like that, especially if the friends are from different social, economic and occupational backgrounds. Or one could prefer to take a daily ‘appointment with oneself” by walking alone, introspecting and retrospecting, and revel in nostalgia especially when loved ones are far away.

Additionally, one must be careful not to do stupid things like climbing ladders and fiercely ‘karchering’ and cleaning, or immediately upon retirement begin to overkill in long hours of unaccustomed exercise and activities such as gardening: be moderate in everything is the motto.  

There must be acceptance of one’s limitations and adjustment of one’s lifestyle accordingly: slow down, take naps, be careful on stairs, organize a ground floor room and as regards bathroom get rid of fancy fittings and have handrails etc. Besides, jot down things to do; keep keys, money etc. in designated places, and be regular with medications, avoid self-stopping without medical advice, or self-medication except simple ones.

Voila! That should do for a start, and may it be a good start on joining the club!

* Published in print edition on 25 May 2021

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